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Mar 01, 2021

How Technology Carried CPAs through the Pandemic

Robert Forney, CPABy Robert S. Forney Jr., CPA


A year ago, on March 19, 2020, Gov. Tom Wolf issued a statewide stay-at-home order to help combat the spread of COVID-19. All businesses, if they were not temporarily closed, had to adapt overnight to something we had only been coming to terms with for a few weeks.

Companies have had to rely more and more on their IT solutions to manage remote teams, recruit and onboard talent, and help their clients through all the months of uncertainty. To gauge how organizations of different sizes adapted to this new environment, I reached out to DunlapSLK, a Montgomery County CPA firm with 10 shareholders and one location, and Baker Tilly, a national accounting and advisory firm with offices throughout Pennsylvania, for comments relating to how they leveraged their IT resources during the pandemic. In addition, I’ll offer my own perspective from the internal audit department at WSFS Bank.

Adaptation

DunlapSLK, serving primarily privately held businesses, local municipalities, and nonprofits, was already working in a cloud-based environment prior to the start of the pandemic, which made the transition to remote working a smooth one. The firm had been using Microsoft Teams internally and invested heavily in Zoom and GoToMeeting to help stay connected with staff and clients. It implemented a COVID-19 Resource Center on its website and enhanced its use of Constant Contact and webinars to keep clients informed of changes in guidance related to the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) and the CARES Act.

Team holding a virtual meeting onlineDunlapSLK had already established a successful virtual bookkeeping practice prior to the pandemic and was able to add several new clients who found these services attractive in the new remote environment. To address the social distancing concerns and keep clients and staff safe, the firm offers a contactless drop off option and promotes the ShareFile platform on its website. As an added convenience for clients, it also implemented QuickFee, an online payment platform.

Baker Tilly had been using these platforms for a while. When the work environment suddenly shifted, its team members were well-versed in using these tools. They were able to use their virtual experience and expertise to help clients not as familiar with these platforms ramp up their own adoption. Additionally, the firm was able to help advise companies unsure about the cybersecurity threat of sharing sensitive information digitally. Finally, it was able to help clients address their unique concerns surrounding how to code payroll to best account for changes in nexus arising from the change in work location for their employees.

The customer-related pandemic response from WSFS internal audit involved working with management to help reconfigure controls to ensure new or changing risks are adequately addressed due to converting to a digital environment. We also helped familiarize management with Microsoft Teams and other file sharing platforms to ease the transition to the new working environment. We also served as an internal resource relating to PPP and the CARES Act compliance from a risk perspective.

Internal Management

What started as a one-day test for WSFS in March 2020 to ensure all associates could work remotely via virtual private network quickly turned into “working remotely until future notice.”

Because of their large workforces, WSFS and Baker Tilly both leveraged their internal intranets to help bolster their company cultures. WSFS’s intranet offers a rolling photo deck showcasing unique customer interactions, volunteer opportunities undertaken by associates, and other social highlights such as Halloween costumes, holiday decorations, and screenshots of virtual parties being held by various departments. Baker Tilly’s team members use it heavily to stay connected with one another – sharing pictures of their home workspaces, pets who have become coworkers, and children distance learning from the kitchen table.

To help keep its team engaged, DunlapSLK sends a weekly team update through Constant Contact that includes a team profile highlighting a member of the staff, firm news and announcements, tech tips, social events, and news regarding the firm’s quarterly charitable outreach initiatives. While the weather accommodated, the firm also held socially distanced happy hours in the parking lot for staff who wanted to connect in person.

Day-to-day management for each company includes video calls between associates and team members, weekly or biweekly all-hands-on-deck calls to keep everyone engaged, and the inevitable call-out that someone speaking was still on mute.

A tool WSFS had slated to implement prior to the pandemic was Teammate+, an integrated audit platform that allows for project tracking, client request list management, report generation, and document storage. Our team has found this was a timely investment and have found these tools to be instrumental in managing our remote team.

Onboarding and Training

Recruiting, onboarding, and training new and existing staff has been a monumentally difficult task this year, regardless of size. Whether a company is onboarding a single employee, a few, or hundreds, modifications to what had worked previously were a necessity in 2020.

At DunlapSLK, onboarding and training became completely virtual, with Microsoft Teams taking the lead. It was put to the test in August when a new team member joined and became the firm’s first-ever, completely virtually onboarded professional. Whether they were training on software programs, shadowing, or fielding questions, Teams played a starring role. One tool within Teams they leveraged was the ability to record training meetings, which served as an effective reference for the new professional.

Additionally, the firm created software champion teams, with each team’s goal to become an expert in their assigned software package and field any questions that arise. Each champion team has a dedicated channel on Microsoft Teams through which staff can post questions and get timely help with software-specific issues they may be experiencing.

In December, Baker Tilly onboarded more than 250 new team members. What had previously been a week-long, in-person training was transformed into a two-week, virtual, blended learning experience. The program mixed a few hours a day as a large group (a chance to bring everyone together) with one-on-ones with their coach, small-team technical training, and on-demand self-study. Baker Tilly noted that finding the right mix wasn’t easy, so it was important for those laying out the training to think strategically regarding how to present different types of information in a virtual environment.

Internal audit at WSFS onboarded three associates during the lockdown, including me. We began with compliance training modules from the American Bankers Association. This learning platform served as a great primer to the banking industry and is used bankwide to stay current on the latest regulation changes. As we began to be assigned to audits, Microsoft Teams was the best way for our co-workers to introduce us to the various internal systems at our disposal. Prior to the pandemic, most audit training was performed sitting side-by-side at a desk in the office; now we train via screensharing through Microsoft Teams and video conferencing.

During the year, our department instituted to a new audit platform, Teammate+. Prior to the pandemic, we would have met with a trainer from Wolters Kluwer to walk us through the various features of the platform. This year, we had afternoon meetings on Zoom with the trainer for about a week, allowing us to explore the system between sessions.

Finally, WSFS offered us webinars put on by the Institute of Internal Auditors, the Big 4, and other CPA firms to help stay current on various topics, including the risks associated with a remote workforce, PPP compliance, and the CARES Act.

Conclusion

CPAs in public practice and in industry find themselves at a crossroads between the typical FASB and tax updates and a new regulatory environment brought on by the world of PPP loans, COVID stimulus payments, and compliance with state and local guidance relating to headcount capacity limits. Staying abreast of the changes to better assists customers is always top of mind, but we’ve also had to focus a significant amount of time and energy to keeping our own departments safe and productive.

I hope this overview was a helpful look at different types of technical responses to COVID-19. The PICPA has even more information at its Coronavirus Updates and Resources section on its website that highlights changes in PPP, CARES Act, and other state guidance.


The author gratefully thanks Carrie Mondell at WSFS Bank, Lisa Leatherman, CPA, and Kyle Andress, CPA, at DunlapSLK, and Fred Massanova, CPA, at Baker Tilly for their insights for this article.


Robert S. Forney Jr., CPA, is an Internal Auditor at WSFS Bank and a member of the Pennsylvania CPA Journal Editorial Board. He can be reached at rob.forney.cpa@gmail.com.


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Disclaimer
Statements of fact and opinion are the authors’ responsibility alone and do not imply an opinion on the part of PICPA officers or members. The information contained in herein does not constitute accounting, legal, or professional advice. For professional advice, please engage or consult a qualified professional.